The one word I have come up with so far to characterize something that is so completely governed by each individual, is organic as in alive. The only other way I can think of defining self-directed learning is to determine what it is not.
Self-Directed Learning, also called independent learning, is not driven by teachers, curriculum or the State Department of Education.
It is not rigid or harsh.
It is not one size fits all.
It is not quiet.
It is not passive.
It is not lonely or anti-social.
It is not tests.
It is not superficial or narrow.
It is not disengaged.
It is not specific knowledge.
It is not distrust.
It is not difficult.
It quite simply is life.
Fitting in, blending in with the crowd, one size fits all, don't make waves are all mantras of today's society. In fact, these have been the modus operendi for over a century, ever since the industrial revolution, when rich industrialists needed cooperative, passive, boring, robot-like workers in their factories. Schools were created to produce these automatons that had a few skills (but, only enough to be efficient) and were completely obedient. And today, we are still trying to produce the same type of population in a world that is completely and unalterably different. We don't need a robotic citizenship any longer.
One size does not fit all! We are all totally unique individuals, with different learning styles, personalities, interests, goals and ambitions, families, and lifestyles. We need to rely on our own skills and interests to create a 'job' for ourselves.
The factories of yesterday will slowly be disappearing. We have already seen this in our own backyard. Reliance on corporations like Alcoa and GM worked fine for our parents and grandparents, but today we get promises from the big companies that are soon discarded. And, as long as they have enough legal staff to handle all of the law suits, those promises will never be kept (sorry, that is my cynicism sneaking in and editorializing).
We should be able to be proud of who we are; we should be able to go out and flaunt our personal differences; we should be able to cry out from the roof-tops, "This is who I am. Don't judge me by your standards!" But, fear often holds us back.
We often feel we can't, because of all those messages (verbal and non) we received throughout our childhood and adolescence. You know the ones: "Please change your shirt, it is a bit revealing." "No, that answer is WRONG!" "Today we are going to....and then I want you to.... and after that...." "Are you going to wear that?" "You have to, everyone else is." "You can't do that, what will people say?" "Sit still and focus." "Don't play with that; it is dirty." "Do your homework!"
We are squashing creativity and ingenuity, two of many characteristics that make us who we are. Many of our kids are growing up without a clue about themselves. They follow the safe, protected track set out for them. We are not protecting them; we are making sure life will be more challenging when they get older, because they have not learned how to solve problems, or entertain themselves.
Trusting kids to follow their instinct and their interests is all about letting go. Controlling every moment of their lives is not going to help them become happy, successful individuals. Trust them to find their own bliss and celebrate the wonderful, amazing, creative humans they are.
Today our educational system is obsessed with standardized tests. They are the means by which student's performance is assessed, teacher's effectiveness is assessed, and schools are assessed, so the states can divvy up the money.
The common line heard over and over explains that these standardized tests are essential to assess a students skills and knowledge to make sure everyone is on the same level (which opens up a completely different problem that I will address in another post). However, when we look at reality, these tests are not assessing the students, they are simply telling us what they are not good at.
Why do we need someone (something) else telling us what we already know?
For example, I recently purchased the TASC Test Preparation Book (the new GED that is more closely aligned with Common Core). It is a good resource to have at the Center, because I may have students who decide to take this high school equivalency exam, or there may be adults in the community who would left school and would like to get their GED, so they can go to college. It sat on the shelf for a couple weeks, then I got curious. What do you need to know to pass the TASC? I decided to take the pretest at the front of the book that determines whether the student needs to study further or if they are ready to take the actual test.
The TSAC consists of five different test areas: Language Arts: Reading, Language Arts: Writing, Math, Social Studies, and Science. The last four are further broken down into two parts each. There are nine tests altogether. It took about three hours to complete them, broken up over a few evenings.
Lo and behold, I learned exactly what I have known my whole entire life (well for a good portion of it), I don't understand Algebra. I got 10 out of 22 questions wrong. Not at all surprising considering it took me four tries to pass the Algebra regents in the early 80's.
But yet, somehow, I have graduated from college-twice, the second time Summa Cum Laude from SUNY Potsdam. I have enjoyed multiple careers, raised two children who are happy, engaged humans, and have most recently founded a not-for-profit.
This is not a brag session,really! My point is fairly simple, I have survived and, yes, thrived for nearly 50 years, without understanding Algebra. Why does our society insist that what we know is more important than our ability to learn new things?
I believe that we are adaptable, ever learning human beings. What I 'learned' in grade school, high school or even in college, does not define who I am. I was fortunate to discover my love of learning through my interest in Anthropology. All of the knowledge I pursue today is because I am passionately interested in learning about it or it is necessary to what I am trying to accomplish.
Yes, it all comes back to intrinsic, self motivation, and self-directed learning. In the end, if someone who left school wants to go to college, they need to take the TASC High School Equivalency Test. The same goes for opening a Non Profit in the US, or starting a farm, or ... fill in the blank. Sometimes you have to suck it up and follow the rules, to realize the goal at the end, all the while realizing, the rest of your life can be lived on your own terms.
Last week-end I attended the Liberate Learners Replication Conference at North Star in Amherst MA, for the second time. Liberated Learners is the Not-For Profit formed last year by Ken from North Star and Joel from Princeton Learning Cooperative (the second Learning Center) that acts as an umbrella and a support organization for all of the Center's that are replicating the North Star model. There are now seven North Star type learning centers in the US and one in Ottawa, Canada. Two of those Center's opened as a direct result of the 2013 Replication Conference, Bay State Learning Center in Dedham, MA and Deep Root Center (us). This year there were several more interested individuals who may begin a Center in their town. This is a growing movement that we are all very excited about. We (members of Liberated Learners) envision a world where there is at least one self-directed learning style Center in each public school district in the US that acts as one more option available to those who are not satisfied with their current educational situation.
To create a replication of North Star you have to decide on what, in practice, it will look like. There are a few guidelines, but they are fairly simple:
You and your team must be determined that you are creating something instead of school. Yes, this is not a school. A Self-Directed Learning Center has no attendance policy; there is no coercion involved, and the learning is directed by the youth. The Center does not offer grades or a diploma.
Other than that, replicating North Star is pretty free form. Which makes sense. We are out here in the world saying each individual has value, needs to be heard, and is completely unique, so too are all of these Centers.
For instance, the other Centers start accepting students at age 11 and are in urban settings. Deep Root Center is in a very rural area and partially because of this we start at a younger age, which will be determined by the interest this generates in our community.
We are all open four days each week, because kids need to establish a life outside of their formal education. However, some are closed on Wednesdays and some of us have decided a long week-end is desirable, so are closed on Fridays.
The bottom line for all of us is definitely the kids. And, each of them use and see these spaces in a completely different way. Some see a rigorous classroom space with group classes or one on one tutorials, others see a comfortable social space, many use it as a place where art and other hands-on projects are created, some see a place with a loving compassionate support group and mentors; the list is endless. It is and can be all of that because this is completely individualized and totally flexible learning model. We are, in fact, whatever each youth needs in their life at this particular moment. Deep Root Center is the headquarters for self-directed, completely personalized learning in the St Lawrence Valley.
If you and your child are looking for something totally different, contact us today. If you know someone who is unhappy and dissatisfied in their current learning environment, please let them know Deep Root Center is here to help them fulfill their educational goals.
Len Mackey is facilitating our Drumming and Dance Workshop next week July 28th-August 1st. Sign up today! Not just for kids! Anyone over the age of 7 is welcome.
In Other News:
We are an official corporation standing completely on our own. We owe Seedcorn a tremendous debt and unending gratitude for guiding us through these past six months. Deep Root Center is currently in the process of filing for 501(c)3 status. We will keep you updated as it progresses.
Which leads to our Help Wanted section. We are looking for someone with bookkeeping/accounting skills to help us get our financial records organized and on Quick Books. If you know of someone who would be able to donate a few hours a month to this endeavor please let us know.
As always thank you for your continued support and enthusiasm for this growing project.
When I went back to school in 2001, my very focused intent was to become a teacher. Because of a few twists and turns during those two years, I earned my bachelors in anthropology and decided not to go back for my Masters of Science in Teaching (MST).
No, I didn't follow the traditional path, as is quite typical of most things I do, but I did in fact become a teacher. For ten years, my days were spent with 8-12 year olds, learning and growing alongside them. I have always called myself an intuitive teacher. My innate response to any child (young, tween or teen) is “lets explore this together” or “lets play with this and see what we come up with.” Natural excitement for discovery and learning new things is one way I try to capture a child's imagination. I don't have all of the answers, but am always happy and more than willing to help any youth research and learn more about whatever they are interested in. I have always felt story telling and conversation are the most effective tools in any learning environment. I owe all of those kids who passed through my classroom a huge debt of gratitude for everything they taught me about living and about being a teacher; they left an indelible mark on my life, and I carry their lessons with me to all of my future students.
As the years went on, my natural inclination for following the student's lead intensified and induced me to research other models of education. During that exhaustive search that involved nearly six months of reading and on-line exploration, I discovered that my ideas about education are not unique. There are many folks out there who believe that learner centered education is the way of the future. But the one model that resonated with me the most, was a place called North Star: Self Directed Learning for Teens in Hadley, MA (near Amherst). Coincidentally, 'karmicly' or fatefully, whatever world view you hold true, two months after I had stumbled upon their website, North Star held a Replication Conference. The direction and focus of my life completely changed after spending that one weekend learning more about the vision of self-directed learning from Ken Danford, the co-founder and executive director of North Star, and the other folks who had recently opened Centers.
I spent the remainder of last summer, hemming, hawing and dithering about trying to open a center here in Canton. A few of those internal conversations went something like, “who are you kidding, this is Northern NY, no one is going to understand something this new and game changing.” Or, “this is just so out of my league.” And the ever recurring, “who will support this?”
Reflecting back, I feel frustrated at the number of days I wasted, but realize that I required time to learn more about myself and what I am actually capable of. In September, I became completely focused, gathered supporters, formed a board, found a space, jumped through a few of 'offficial-doms' hoops, and by January 7th opened Deep Root Center with one student member.
Now, after completing our Pilot Program, I recognize the mistakes made during the last six months, but I can also celebrate the many successes that occurred during that time. I spent my days with some awesome kids. I have learned how to promote and market a new business, create a business plan, build a budget, file for non-profit status, fearlessly (well mostly) engage people at public events, supported my daughter as an independent learner and witnessed her success, and most importantly asked for what we need, because, if I don't ask, folks don't have the opportunity to reply, “yes”. We are an entity in downtown Canton. People recognize our logo and are asking questions. This is just the beginning and I am so incredibly grateful that Ken was fed up with the educational system in 1996 and founded what became North Star, and that a year ago I had the courage to follow my heart; to make this particular dream a reality for myself and for all of those kids who will discover we are here just for them.
This coming weekend will find me in Hadley, MA at North Star for my second Replication Workshop. I will be there with an abundance of questions for those who are already established, but this time I will have stories and wisdom of my own to pass onto folks who are in the place I was exactly a year ago.
Help Wanted (yup, I am reprising this column in the newsletter/blog)
DRC is looking for a volunteer bookkeeper to create and maintain a bookkeeping system for the Center. This would initially take a few hours, and from there would probably be 1-2 hours per month.